Why Global Justice Now are taking the government to court.
Jeremy Corbyn brought a prop to his debate with Boris Johnson on Tuesday night: a bundle of official papers through which government officials had wheeled a black pen, removing virtually any details of the talks which British trade negotiators have been holding with their American counterparts.
Beneath the black marks are answers to the burning questions which the public wants to ask Boris Johnson: what is your government prepared to offer Donald Trump in a trade deal between our countries – our food standards? Our personal data? Our NHS?
That we are not currently allowed to know the answers to these questions shows just how undemocratic Britain’s trade policy really is. And it gets worse: our MPs can’t know the answer to these questions either. They haven’t been told the government’s objectives or their red lines in these trade talks. They can’t hold the government to account for the talks already underway. And, should the government agree a trade deal, they can’t stop that deal coming into effect.
On the table
So worried was my organisation, Global Justice Now, by this gaping democratic hole, that 18 months ago we asked to see government agendas and summary minutes of what was going on in trade talks with the US, and more than a dozen other countries. We were worried, in particular, because we knew that trade deals today are about far more than tariffs. They are about regulations, standards and protections, about what we can eat and what we can buy, about our public services, about how much a government can regulate and tax big business.
Jeremy Corbyn’s assertion that the NHS is under threat from these talks is very credible. It’s not jut that Donald Trump has said, clearly and publicly, that ‘the NHS is on the table.’ It’s also that the US government has formally stated, in its publicly available negotiating objectives for trade talks with the UK, that it wants changes to the way that the NHS can buy medicines.
Those changes would mean that medicine prices could rise so high that they’d threaten the very existence of the NHS. A trade deal would also allow US healthcare multinationals to run parts of our NHS, and make the ability of a future governments to fully return the NHS to public ownership nearly impossible.
It’s not just the NHS. We know the US government and US business also want to use a trade deal to change British food regulations, allowing industrially farmed food packed with steroids, hormones and antibiotics, onto our shelves. They want to prevent our government effectively taxing the wealth of huge tech companies like Facebook, Amazon and Google. And they want to give US big business new powers to bully and challenge our government when it tries to protect the environment.
So we wanted to take a closer look at the government’s trade talks with Trump’s officials. Sadly the government wouldn’t give us any details of these talks. They wouldn’t even tell us when or where the negotiators met. In fact, so worried were they about the public finding out about these talks, they asked the US government to sign a confidentiality statement promising to keep details of the talks a secret.
We appealed. And under appeal, the government decided that it was being too stringent. They could release something. We were relieved. Until, that is, we received the hundreds and hundreds of papers of agendas, briefings and minutes concerning trade talks between Britain and a number of other countries. Virtually all of the text in these papers had been blacked out. They gave us almost no information at all.
This approach to democracy is nothing new. It’s part of a consistent pattern which May and Johnson’s governments have taken towards trade policy: the public must know nothing, and MPs must have no power when it comes to trade deals.
Three years ago we started working with MPs and Lords, from all political parties, to amend the government’s Trade Bill. Given that that Bill failed to give either the public or parliament any control over trade deals, we drew up a list of demands which would have given the public the right to be consulted and informed about trade negotiations.
They would also have given MPs the right to see and approve the government’s negotiating objectives, to hold the Trade Secretary to account, and, if necessary, to stop a bad trade deal. Nothing extraordinary, just the level of accountability which we already have in the European Union. And after all, former trade secretary Liam Fox had already told us that he wanted to conduct the most transparent trade talks anywhere in the world. Our demands shouldn’t have been a problem.
Earlier this year, the House of Lords passed an amendment to the Trade Bill containing many of these demands. But so determined was the government to squash this amendment that they effectively dropped the whole piece of legislation. They let it die in the Lords, failing to give it time to move forward.
So neither MPs nor the public have any rights when it comes to trade policy. At the last election, Labour, the SNP, the Greens and the Lib Dems all made commitments to change this. We hope they’ll do so again.
In the meantime, we are taking the government to court, on election day, challenging their ability to keep these papers secret. We’ll find out if we’re successful shortly after we know who will form the next British government.
In the meantime, before we have access to the papers themselves, the only thing you can do when contemplating your vote is ask yourself this: when Boris Johnson says he won’t sell the NHS, do you trust him?
Nick Dearden is director of Global Justice Now.
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